HMS Lion

HMS Lion in Grand Harbour, Valletta

Charlie and a Sailor of
Her Majesty the Queen

by Joe

Malta is just the greatest.

I knew this was going to be super even as we entered port. The “Grand Harbour” is well named. Everywhere you look there are forts and castles and old stone buildings. But it’s also a surprisingly large harbor with plenty of room for large ships. There are a number of inlets that fork off the entrance like the fingers off your hand. These, however, can narrow quickly, particularly when you start trying to maneuver big ships about. So there were these antique tug boats that I absolutely loved. They were sidewheelers. They could put one wheel ‘ahead starboard’ and one wheel ‘astern port,’ and turn on a dime (or a brass farthing I suppose). Just the ticket when there were slender fingers to maneuver in. They had tall funnels, so I imagined they were coal burners, but I never found out for sure. I bet they were all at least fifty to sixty years old and still going strong.

We’re going to be here for two weeks. Malta is getting independence, or something like it; then it will be a part of the British Empire. I wasn’t exactly clear on this. Nelson had taken the islands away from Napoleon and the British had been here ever since. So why now? Anyway, there will be major celebrations, fireworks and parties, and our Commodore is the official representative of the U S Navy. We’ll be getting maximum liberty as we’re supposed to be demonstrating friendship as well as alliance. Men o’ war from everywhere are coming to the party.

Jim and I went together on our first liberty. Jim is my number one steaming buddy. He’s an electronics technician. He’s responsible for maintaining and repairing all manner of sensitive electronic equipment; he’s also Cherokee — silken rich black hair, lustrous deep brown eyes, hardly any hair on his lithe body, uncut; he appears to be nicely tanned, but when he’s naked, his complexion is even, he’s like tanned all over. Jimmy and I are intimate friends. Best possible friends. But we’re not in love. Not in the white picket fence, two cats in the yard, kind of love. Which is not to say that we don’t do the wild thing, because we do. We care for each other; but we’re just not in love. It’s really hard to describe. Super friendship, I guess; but at least it makes it easy to go boy watching with him as there’s no jealousy involved.

Jim and I quickly discovered the “Gut” and moved just as quickly on. The “Gut” is Valletta’s waterfront dive. Numberless bars, hookers, thieves and procurers striving to separate the visitor from his money. From most of the signs and ads, it was clear that their principal target was members of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force — but any fleet will do just so long as it’s in.

Having seen all this before we left it quickly behind. We walked on a fair way, on narrow streets like alleys paved with stone, stores and houses all connected, until I caught sight of a pub sign that was intriguing. There was a painting of an old-time ironclad, the sign was bordered in black, and it was labelled “H.M.S. Victoria”. “Let’s try it,” I grabbed Jim and pointed. “We’ve hiked enough for now.” Jim smiled and nodded, we went in.

H.M.S. Victoria was a bar — or actually a pub, I guess. There was a long bar and there were also some tables and booths for groups. Two dart boards. The walls were paneled in dark wood with pictures of ships, sailors and officers that all but covered the walls. It was fairly busy, mostly with sailors. There were some French sailors with that ridiculous pom-pom on their caps; there were some Germans with the ribbons trailing off the rear of their caps. The Italian Navy was well represented, their cap is similar to a Limeys only there’s a sort of cockade on one side. There were a number of Limeys as one might expect. Jim and I were the only Yanks. Our caps are rather boring in comparison.

This was a respectable and permanent pub. We got up to the bar and ordered “bitters”. We’d learned to enjoy a pint, or two, in Gibraltar and Aden. At home, I’m fond of Coors, or a comparable lager, but over here, I found “bitters” to be best; plus, they never seemed to get their lager cold enough for my taste.

I’d heard several sailors call the bartender “Meera” and she looked the part. She was comfortably middle aged, of ample proportions, and had a certain no-nonsense air about her. Any soliciting by girls in this bar would be done with tasteful discretion.

I’d always been interested in the British monetary system in use here, so I know which coin was what. I also knew the difference between a ‘bob and a ‘quid’. I had just paid three bob for two pints of bitters. An Italian sailor down the bar, had just paid half a crown — two and sixpence — for one pint. Hah, I chortled to myself, they’re gouging the Italians. I thought that was only right as, in Italy, it was the Yanks who tended to be mercilessly gouged. I’d heard about this, but in Italy, I was usually with Mario and so exempt.

At this time World War II had been over almost twenty years. I thought it fascinating that so many ex-allied and ex-enemies were getting along so soon after that horrible war. When Meera had stopped close to me, I asked her, “What’s it like having Germans and Italians in here?”

“They are scum! Animala!” There was more in a language I did not understand but it didn't sound in the least complimentary. “They dropped poison candy for the children with their bombs. Scata!” She moved down the bar toweling the top aggressively.

I’d never heard of that. Surely not. But wait — she’d been here.

Jim bought the next round and then we had some excellent fish and chips.

Two Danish sailors came rolling in and I noted with alarm that they wore white shoes with their summer kit. As if it wasn’t already hard enough to keep a white uniform clean on a ship. At least we didn’t have to worry about shoes.

Just before we left, Meera told me to be sure and see the Co-Cathedral. “Yes ma’am, I’ll do it,” was the only possible response.

On what should have been our next early liberty, Jim was tangled up with some super-secret sensitive electronic device that declined to work. I knew the feeling. I worked on the radar and computer system that aimed our guns and they could be cranky sometimes, too. I went ashore and decided I’d go see the Co-Cathedral. Jim was never too interested in those sorts of things. He’d had some unpleasant experiences at the Catholic School on the “rez” and was not a fan of anything Catholic. Jim was very proud of his Cherokee heritage and that hadn’t gone over well at this school. I didn't fully understand this. After all, it was on a Cherokee reservation. But Jim never went into any great detail on this, he mostly just sneered and swore.

There was a common little square in front of the Cathedral. I was a little disappointed. It was, at least in comparison to the other three cathedrals I’d seen, rather blah. Two towers, a clock, bells, built of the native sandstone and almost completely devoid of decoration. People were coming and going. No services were in progress. I just strolled on in. Inside. Well, inside it was breathtaking!

It was overwhelming and I shut my eyes in an effort to regain my equilibrium. I had to give myself a moment or two to recover from the sweep of grandeur that had assaulted me. I opened my eyes and looked to the deck. But this was amazing too. There were these wonderful mosaics that appeared to be some kind of gravestones. They all seemed to have a classic deaths head, or skeletons in black robes; my eye fixed on one that had a full skeleton wielding the classic scythe used to harvest the dead. There were different aristocratic ‘coats-of-arms’ from one to another. They were ornate and arresting. I wondered who Josepho de Andrea might have been. The text following his name was in Latin. I again rued the fact that the Latin teacher at my school had retired the year before I began high school. If you went much beyond ’festina lente’, or ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’, you would pretty much exhaust my command of Latin. These were clearly gravestones and they would have been fascinating to read.

“Oi Yank,” a pleasant voice murmured behind me. I turned to answer and was, again — overwhelmed. Beauty does that to me. There before me stood an absolutely stunning Sailor of Her Majesty the Queen. Glorious. He was just simply glorious. His was a special kind of glory; not that formal kind of dignified beauty of, you know, say Michelangelo’s David, or any of those magnificent statues of Hadrian’s beau Antinous. Those were of the: ‘I am just way too beautiful and all of you know it’ sort. This was way different. Living beauty. Long eyelashes fluttering beauty. Immediate beauty.

“Er. Yeah…um…hi.” I croaked.

He smiled. “Awesome in here, innit?”

“Yeah,” I got out without much originality. “These, here, on the deck, are these gravestones do yuh know?” There. Real progress. I had overcome his beauty and contributed to the conversation.

His smile was lovely and I again could almost feel the reality of his beauty. He was no marble David; but his beauty could easily have been captured in classical bronze. He projected the relaxed humanity of, say, Donatello’s bronze David, all relaxed with one foot on Goliath's Head. All cheeky and assured, naked and ready for anything, sword to hand, I’d like to see my new friend naked too, I thought almost instantly. Bad Charlie! I laughed to myself.

“Well, kinda.” The vision observed. “I read where some a the knights are buried down below. But all the knights ain’t here. See a lot of ‘em were like, younger sons. They signed-up for a few years and then later went home when their term was up, or the family called them back. Or whatever. But yes, a lot of ‘em are buried down below in these tombs. All the ones that died here, anyway, are down there. ‘Cept the ones as went down with their ships, course.”

“So we’re not really walking on their graves. There’s like those Roman catacombs down below?”

“I’m thinkin’ so.”

Which brought me back to his beauty, His cap tally, “HMS Lion,” named him as a crewman of the British light cruiser moored in the harbor; he wore his cap jauntily, his blonde hair was just a trifle on the longish side — not military at all. His eyes were brown; his cheeks were rosy. They were that genuine rose that seems to be a hallmark of the British Isles. He was slender, my height, and just a joy to look at.

“Come, look at this mosaic,” and so we began a tour of the Co-Cathedral.

He showed me these beautiful columns that, when you looked at them closely, were actually mosaics. I’d never seen a curved surface that was mosaic. But it got better as we were admiring the ornate tomb of a grand master.

“Here. Look at it from over here,” he laid his fingers over my wrist, leading me to the side of the sepulcher. His touch was light and lovely. From this new angle the portrait of the dead grand master, which had looked exactly like one of those dark old Dutch paintings you see in a museum, was now revealed to also be a mosaic. But somehow, his gentle touch had hinted of Eros. We ignored the fallen knights and masters and looked deeply into each other’s eyes. Golden brown were his.

It struck me that it’s ever so much easier to appreciate the glory of art when you’re in fact being guided by a completely natural work of art.

He grinned, “I'm a Robertson. Will you call me Alec?”

“I’m a Webb. If I’m to call you Alec, then you must call me Charlie.”

I knew that we’d just made a major step. One touch was enough to get us to Christian names. I knew enough to know that was fast work for an Englishman.

I was lost. Soaring in the depth of his eyes. This was not just lust. Though that was there. This was far more than that; this had to be what they were talking about with that old song and dance about ‘love at first sight’. I’d heard about that; I’d read about that — but I’d never really felt it before. It was scary.

I returned to his eyes and felt their depth. We stood rapt by the vista within our eyes.

“Are you up for a cuppa?” The vision of love inquired.

“Sure,” I replied, stifling the impulse to proclaim undying love there and then.

Again he laid his fingers on my wrist and started us out of the cathedral. In that moment, I’d have gone anywhere with him.

In the bright sunshine of the cathedral square, I followed Alec in the serene confidence that he’d know where we were going.

Without really having paid much attention to the passage of time and scenery, I found myself seated at a small table and we were doing tea. Tea with milk and cake. Very refreshing. The tea and the company.

To the degree that I’d ever thought about tea shops, which I’ll admit was not very much; I’d always thought vaguely about delicate and fancy china, silver tea pots, sterling cutlery, spelled “shoppe” and that sort of fanciness. This was nothing like that. I had a serious mug that advised, “Daily flogging will continue until the crew’s morale improves.”

“That’s Jack Cornwall,” I said, deeply moved by the large photograph on the bulkhead picturing him in his uniform with a red poppy and his Victoria Cross superimposed.

“You know him?” Alec inquired with his twinkling eyes and infectious grin. “I’m proud of you. Boy First Class John Tavers Cornwall. V. C. Dead. At Jutland it was. War is such a waste.” He was no longer smiling and his eyes were somber now. “It doesn’t really matter, you know, the cause of the war or any of that shite. It’s still a waste.”

We looked at Jack in silent communion for a long moment.

“So this is a tea shop,” I commented to shift the mood. “Nothing like what I expected at all.”

“No. This is a sort of Navy tea shop. An old commander with a fondness for matelots owns it. Wants us to have a place to come and enjoy the finer things.”

“Hah! Thought you had me din’tcha! Well, I just happen to know what a matelot is, so just take that with yer tea and crumpets Mister Alec.”

That glorious grin returned. “K Mister Charlie, if yer so smart, what’s a crumpet?”

He had me. I didn’t have the foggiest notion what a crumpet actually was; but I did have a momentary vision of a cottage with stone walls and a thatched roof. Inside, Alec was pouring Charlie a cup of tea from a sterling pot. Then Alec took my hand and gave me a gentle squeeze. He did not let go of my hand.

I could only smile and return the squeeze.

“Come, there’s nobody on the balcony; we can sit and listen to the street noise.”

“Street noise?” I wondered.

He grinned that grin again. “Well, there’s no kind of view. There is some street noise. But there’s also this nice lounge, come see.” So I went of course.

It was a lovely lounge, meant for patios and such. Huge stuffed cushions with plenty of room. But we didn’t use a lot of room. We sat close together. He smiled. Then he kissed me.

And I just kissed him right back.

A warm and deeply passionate kiss. Our hands were going everywhere and our uniforms were coming off.

So, well, there’s sex. And then there’s sex. This was epic sex. It was instantly clear to us that we shared an intense desire to please the other. We did so. Twice. Alec got up and came back with some tea towels. Lovingly, he dried me of the essence of love that we had generated and I returned the favor with great pleasure.

“You know,” he said. “I think I love you.”

“I’m pretty sure I love you too. I don’t really have to think about it even a little bit.”

We sat companionably in the nude. He rested his head on my shoulder and we played mutually in our pubes, with our sex.

There was a quick rapping on the door and it opened. “Not to worry lads, ‘tis only me.” An older man, neatly dressed, with silver hair, and a neatly trimmed beard, stood in the doorway holding a tray, regarding us fondly. Alec made no move to cover or hide, so I relaxed too.

“Here, I’ve brought you a nice lime squash and some sandwiches.” He set the tray on a small side table, regarded us with complete approval, and left.

“Not to worry,” Alec forestalled my questions. “That’s the commander I told you about, He’s a love. He’s one of us and he keeps this place for us. He lives upstairs. He’s every inch a gentleman.”

We enjoyed the refreshments though I viewed the sandwiches with some suspicion. Cucumber? No crusts?

“What’s he got a pension? Retired from the navy? That sort of thing?”

“Well I know he’s retired, but he don’t need a pension. He’s rich. Owns a lot of land back home. He owns this block here in town. I think he’s a squire or a baron or summat.

“I’ll need to introduce you before we go. Then you can come here if yer in port and I’m not. Don’t worry about him; he won’t try anything. He had a cancer so he can’t.”

We did the wild thing again and then we had to get back to our ships. It would be two days before we could meet again.

“Can you be here at noon?” Alec was intense.

“I’ll be here cuz I love you.”

“I love you too. Be told!” He tried to look fierce.

That night I lay in my rack and relived this great adventure. I told myself I’d missed a great opportunity to make a joke about “limey” when we’d had our lime squash. Then I decided that a joke would have been a dumb idea. It would have been trite and the day had been sublime.

The next morning was Independence Day — or whatever they were calling it. I would be petty officer in charge of the watch for the forenoon watch. In the navy, you relieve the watch fifteen minutes early, so I’d be on duty for colors and I was ready to go in my dress whites with my Colt .45 buckled around my waist, holstered and empty. We had a color party of five: one hand for the ensign, one for the jack, three riflemen, and me to give orders. Colors is a big deal in the navy so we would all salute when the ensign went up. Once the ensign and jack were two-blocked, those hands had to stand at the salute until the ceremony was over. While we were getting things in order, we heard the beat of drums from the nearby quay and it was apparent that a Royal Marine band was going to perform.

At 0800 colors commenced and the concert began. And it was a concert. The band commenced playing national anthems and they played on and on. I recognized some of them. There was God Save the Queen, of course, and the Star Spangled Banner, and the Marseillaise, and Deutschland Uber Alles; I recognized the Wilhelmus because my mom’s side of the family are Dutch and proud of it. But I did not recognize the Maltese national anthem, or the Italian, or the Greek, or the Danish. There may even have been others that I didn’t recognize. I really don’t know. But it was quite a concert. I worried about my firing party, standing at present arms with those old Garands had to be a strain.

They were finally done and colors was finally over. None of the color party had collapsed. Even for September, it was hotter than the hubs of hell standing at the salute, on the deck, in the full Mediterranean sun, for what seemed like — ever. The OD sent me to get a drink of water and take five. That was Mister Van Doern, a real gent.

Happily, I was only a few minutes late to meet Alec. Alec smiled and kissed me. We were to have “high tea” at the commander’s that afternoon; but we did have time to visit a Roman
villa and admire still more mosaics. The guide poured some water on the ancient floor and the colors came to life. Mostly, I was entranced by Alec, so I don’t remember what scene that beautiful floor depicted.

There was a lot of serious stuff to discuss at this “high tea” and so I never asked what a “high tea” really was. There seemed to be a little more food, but otherwise it seemed pretty much the same as our first tea at the commander’s. The china was sturdy of the “no nonsense” sort. Decorated with a small fouled anchor. The pot was certainly sterling, but was of a good solid design without frippery. The tray was highly polished wood with silver handles; all of it entirely serious and thoroughly masculine. It was entirely “proper,” as they say.

“We’re leavin’ tomorrow,” Alec said solemnly. “They want us over between the Turks and the Greeks. Over by Cyprus.”

“We’re off to Cadiz. Then home. What’re we gonna do?”

“Well firstly we need to stay in touch. Here’s my navy address and here’s the folks address. They’ll know where I am.” Alec, for an Able Seaman, was very much the Petty Officer in charge of planning.

“How’re we gonna do this?” I worried as I handed him my addresses. “I love you. I’ve got this dream of us in a cottage with a thatched roof and a silver teapot.”

“You’ll see. We’ll figure it out. We may hafta start with a hotel room in Toronto. But we can do this.”

“Fuck! I wish I’d got you a bracelet, or a pendant, or something for a keepsake. Like you know, for good luck. Mebbe a Saint Christopher’s medal. Or Saint George maybe. Yeah. Saint George. That would work.”

“No time for that now. Here. Let’s trade cigarette lighters. They got our ships on ‘em. They’ll bring us good luck.”

We spent our last few minutes kissing and promising. Then we were off to opposite ends of the sea.

The mail is just so slow. My letters have to go through the British Forces Post Office before they go chasing his ship. His letters have to come through our Fleet Post Office before they come after my ship. Seems to take forever.

But the time just kept getting longer while the distance grew further.

At least I have his lighter to touch and remember.


***** finis *****

I’d like to thank Douglas and Jerry for all the work and advice they’ve given to me on this and other stories. Special thanks are always due to Mike for his devoted work on Awesome Dude. He makes it the wonderful site that it is.

I believe that the picture of HMS Lion is within the public domain. It’s readily available on the internet without attribution. The lighter belongs to the author.

I’ve tried to keep the nautical jargon limited; but Charlie and Alec are blue water sailors so they’d never say floor, or wall.

OD can mean Officer of the Deck or Day depending on the circumstances, but it’s always just said “OD.” He’s temporarily in command while on duty..

I’ve a vivid recollection of a Chief Boatswain's Mate bellowing at a hapless Seaman Deuce who didn’t get the flag to the top of the flagstaff one morning at colors. “Two block that ensign (expletives deleted)!” A thousand years of outraged nautical propriety roared across the fantail. The OD, standing right there, appeared to be deaf.

“Commodore” has a somewhat tortured history in the US Navy. On some occasions it has been an actual rank; at other times it was a sort of honorarium that carried a lot of baggage around with it. At this time, it’s a courtesy title for an officer who commands more than one ship, but rather less than a fleet. In this particular case, the Commodore is a four ring Captain of vast seniority who commands a squadron of eight destroyers.

To the best of my knowledge, the pub “H.M.S. Victoria” is a figment of my imagination. There was an HMS Victoria that was once the flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet. Her admiral gave an impossible order and she was rammed and sunk with great loss of life, including the admiral. This was back when battleships were equipped with rams after the experience of Hampton Roads and Lissa.

I have never encountered any evidence to support the actual delivery of poisoned candy to the people of Malta; but I can attest that many Maltese believed that they did.

Until quite recently, there was an actual rank of “Boy” in the Royal Navy. There were three classes based on age.

The Garands that the color party are hefting are the old US M-1’s which weigh in at a hefty nine pounds without bayonet. A considerable weight if one is not used to regular rifle drill.

I was not able to attach a picture of Charlie’s ship’s lighter. I gave it away. In Malta.